By JIM KUHNHENN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — In a politically sizzling attack, President Barack Obama on Tuesday accused his Republican presidential challengers of abandoning the American worker and took credit for the auto industry's resurgence while singling out GOP opposition to the taxpayer-backed rescue of General Motors and Chrysler that he helped engineer.
Speaking to a raucous United Auto Workers audience, Obama said that assertions by Republican presidential candidates that union members profited from the taxpayer-paid rescue are a "load of you know what."
Even though Obama did not mention his critics by party or by name, the speech's delivery and content had all the makings of a political stump speech. Even the timing had political overtones, purposefully delivered just as voters in Michigan — a center of auto manufacturing — went to the polls to cast their ballots in the state's Republican nominating contest.
Union president Bob King praised Obama as "the champion of all workers" who "saved our jobs and saved our industry," an introduction that elicited chants of "four more years!" from a crowd estimated at about 1,700 UAW members.
In highlighting the auto industry's comeback, Obama drew a distinct contrast with Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, both of whom have said they would not have used government money to save GM and Chrysler.
Still, the White House took umbrage at suggestions that the speech was political, insisting it was a policy address about the state of the auto industry.
"These are substantive policy issues that affected hundreds of thousands, even millions of Americans," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "And they're very worth speaking about, as president."
Obama's speech came as auto sales are surging, on a pace to exceed 14 million this year. Auto makers and parts companies added more than 38,000 jobs last year, with industry employment averaging 717,000 for 2011. And automakers have announced plans to add another 13,000 jobs this year.
As recently as Sunday, Romney said Obama favored the UAW in the bailout and that the president was "paying off the people that supported him." Santorum has expressed a similar sentiment.
Obama left no doubt they were his targets.
"You've got folks saying, 'Well, the real problem is, what we really disagreed with was the workers, they all made out like bandits; that saving the American auto industry was just about paying back unions,'" Obama said. "Really? Even by the standards of this town, that's a load of you-know-what."
He noted that under the agreement to use taxpayer money to save GM and Chrysler, union members had to agree to reduced wages and that thousands of retirees saw reductions in their health care benefits.
"But they're still talking about you as if you're some special interest that needs to be beaten down," Obama said.
Romney's campaign hit back, arguing that Obama is attacking Romney because he fears him most among the Republican candidates. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul blamed Obama for lost jobs, lost homes and lost businesses in Michigan.
"No other candidate cares for Michigan or the automotive industry like Mitt Romney does, and he is heartbroken to see what has happened to his native state," Saul said.
The Republican Party also weighed in, doubling down on the claim that in authorizing the bailout Obama was simply doing the bidding of labor. "This is an insider deal for his union cronies who got billions in bailout money and are now backing Obama's re-election campaign," said Kirsten Kukowski of the Republican National Committee.
In his speech, Obama cast himself in heroic terms, saying he ran to "make the tough calls and do the right thing no matter what the politics."
In fact, Obama was not alone. Before Obama took office, President George W. Bush, faced with a reluctant Congress, directed more than $17 billion in emergency loans to GM and Chrysler in his final weeks in office. Bush demanded that the companies reduce their debt, negotiate wage and benefit cuts with workers and submit plans to achieve long-term viability.
In a veiled shot at Romney, Obama also said some critics wanted to "let Detroit go bankrupt." The phrase was the headline on a November 2008 opinion piece Romney wrote for the New York Times. In that opinion piece, Romney called for a managed bankruptcy that would restructure the companies by letting them "shed excess labor, pension and real estate costs."
In his article, Romney added: "The federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk."
The president sought to portray himself as a longtime ally of labor, recalling his days as a community organizer working with steel workers who had been laid off when their plants shut down.
"That still drives me today," he said, reiterating a line he uses in political campaign events. "So I'll promise you this: as long as you've got an ounce of fight left in you, I'll have a ton of fight left in me."
Obama also announced that his administration will crack down on unfair trade practices worldwide, a popular theme with labor and a counterpunch to Romney's tough-on-China rhetoric. Obama was signing an executive order creating an Interagency Trade Enforcement Center.
The office will expand the administration's ability to challenge unfair trading practices in China and elsewhere and coordinate enforcement activity across several U.S. government agencies. Obama's most recent budget proposal asks Congress for millions of dollars for the new enforcement center and more U.S. inspectors in China.
Associated Press writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.